Why We Built Readability

As we’ve already mentioned, we couldn’t be happier that Apple has chosen to leverage our own Readability as a native feature in the Safari browser. As the debate around Safari Reader heats up, we thought we’d chime in and share some of our thoughts, motivations and aspirations for what reading can become on the Web.

The Decline of Print

It’s been well reported that traditional print publishing is in a state of turmoil today. For years, it has been experiencing a gradual decline in paper advertising and circulation. All the while, the ad revenue from Web properties has not caught up with the revenue lost on the print side.

In response, what has materialized is an almost frantic attempt to deliver as many ad impressions as possible alongside original copy on the Web. Some news sources and blogs do a better job than others, but many show no regard for the potential impact on the viewing and reading experience. The ad men have bullied their way into art direction and copy. In the fight to survive, the due respect that a quality piece of content deserves goes by the wayside.

But this isn’t only about ads.

When we created Readability, we built something we badly wanted. It turned out that legions of others wanted the same thing. So what exactly did we want?

We wanted a better reading experience.

Here’s the harsh reality for publishers big and small: when we read, we want to be left alone. If the article or post is really great, we really want to be left alone. The better the text, the more we’d like to be left alone with it.

So what needs to go away so I can read peacefully? Everything. Not just ads. Layers of navigation. Reams of “related” links. Article “tools” for sharing. Everything but the stuff worth reading must leave our line of sight. This is the place we all seek to be when we find something worth reading.

Beyond just a “clean” reading view, Readability has proven invaluable for people with vision problems and cognitive difficulties. We’ve received countless emails from users thanking us for making the Web usable again for them.

We wanted a consistent reading experience.

It isn’t only about removing unwanted elements to read peacefully. It’s about transforming a page so that it presents itself in a manner that the reader finds familiar. The Web is an incredible but wildly unpredictable place. There are no interface guidelines for the Web.  It can be experienced in countless ways. While some de facto design patterns have surfaced, there is no sense of consistency.

Apple enjoys substantial customer loyalty by exerting an unusual amount of control on how interfaces and content are presented. The typical iPhone application evinces a common set of patterns and elements that reinforce themselves across applications. The Web benefits from none of that. There is no “user advocate” for the Web.

Readability and its progeny impose an after-the-fact quasi-standard. By empowering users to effectively force a particular set of visual guidelines, we provided an antidote for inconsistency and unpredictability. I personally find myself clicking on Readability on sites that have no ads at all and are relatively well-designed. It isn’t just about removing stuff, it’s about imposing a consistent experience across the Web.

We wanted it on the Web.

Publishing has written off the Web. The line of argument is familiar: It’s messy. It’s cluttered. It’s unsafe. People expect everything to be free. As a result, publishing finds itself looking elsewhere to solve the puzzle of distributing and monetizing. Magazines like Time, Wired and Popular Science have decided to invest in delivering purchasable “packages” of their content that work on Apple’s iPad. Many magazines and newspaper subscriptions are available today on Amazon’s Kindle.

Why not the Web? How did the Web become relegated as the discount bin of content? The Web is perfectly capable of delivering a world class, beautifully designed reading experience.

For us, the Web is the right bet. The notion of tethering content delivery to a particular proprietary platform or hardware device is admitting defeat. Content is effectively locked up. It’s un-shareable, un-index-able, inaccessible and un-linkable. It’s a glorified form of paper.

Where do we go from here?

Let’s work back from what we believe everyone would like to see happen on the Web:

  • We want a reading experience that is attractive, consistent and isn’t tethered to any single hardware or software standard, but rather works seamlessly on the Web and across various form factors and devices.
  • We want a set of standards or design guidelines that publishers can opt into that deliver a consistent way of experiencing content.
  • We want a way to package up or “bundle” discrete units of content (e.g. articles that comprise a magazine) and represent them in an easily searchable, findable way on the Web.

To date, Readability is purely an end user tool. As we look ahead, we plan to make it even easier for both users and publishers to deliver better reading experiences on the Web.

If you care about all facets of the Web reading experience – design, typography, semantics, technology – and are interested in helping us take Readability from a browser tool to a broader Web reading platform, we’d love to hear from you.

We’re incredibly excited about what we have in store for Readability. You can keep up with updates and announcements by visiting this blog or following us on Twitter.